Pops Conway's Georgetown Basketball Scholarship

May 19, 2019

Part I: How He Got It

The letter addressed to my father, Neal Conway at 99 N. Main St. in Ashley, Pennsylvania was dated April 18, 1949. "I have been following your progress in basketball with great interest this year," the letter's writer, a J. J. Movern, informed Dad, "and I am wondering whether you would be interested in attending our University next fall."

"Our University" was Georgetown. Although the letter hinting at a basketball scholarship was sent, not from the Georgetown address at 37th & O Streets but from an address on the corner of Newark Street and Wisconsin Ave., an apartment building called The Abby. Nor was the letter on Georgetown University letterhead. Nevertheless my father, in a May 2 response, returned the requested answered questionnaire and a photo of himself. Thus began a four-month frustrating adventure toward obtaining a Georgetown basketball scholarship.

The stack of letters I found after my father's death tell an incomplete story that I heard nothing of while Dad was alive. Frankly I, not having the basketball gene, was never curious about my father's hoops career. Thus, after 70 years what exactly happened in that episode that changed the course of my parents' lives and brought them to Washington, DC, where I was born and raised, will likely always be a mystery in this life.

"...I am wondering what your affiliation is with Georgetown."

At the end of those four months, my father wrote in a letter complaining to Georgetown Assistant Dean Rev. Lawrence R. McHugh, S.J.: "I suppose you wonder why I should annoy you with all the details in this letter. They probably seem incredible, and well they may, for they could never do justice to the actual trouble this scholarship has caused me....I am wondering how many other fellows have been put through the same nonsense."

Did the "nonsense" involve typical Catholic-institution dysfunction and incompetence? Was someone trying to make money by connecting potential students with scholarships? Was the "nonsense" a bit of both? Was Georgetown hungry for consistency in winning seasons and casting a broad net for players who could deliver them?

In the spring of 1949 my father was 24 years old and married almost a year. He had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Back home in Pennsylvania, he drifted from employer to employer in electricity-related jobs. He worked for Bell Telephone in Lancaster, installed the runway approach lights at Avoca Airport near Scranton. Until recently the steel-girder structure for those lights loomed over I-81 at the airport exit. Dad went to barber school. When the letter kicking off the Georgetown adventure arrived, he was working for the Wilkes-Barre Transit Company and playing on its basketball team.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway John J. Movern

John J. Movern, Georgetown's business manger of athletics, whose motive in contacting my father about a scholarship is a mystery.

In 1949 most Americans neither went to college nor saw a college degree as a must-have ticket to a good living. Indeed since the 1920s college had been depicted in popular culture as a playground for rich kids. My Mom, a straight-A student at St. Leo's High, turned down scholarships to college and became an administrative assistant. She figured that college was a dead end for women and went to a secretarial school instead. Newly married to my Dad in 1949, she had a good job in the front office of the Hazard-Okonite cable-making company in Wilkes-Barre.

However the G.I. Bill of Rights for World War II veterans such as my Dad inspired him and many of his fellow vets to consider college when they otherwise would not have. The G.I. Bill gave $500/year for college tuition. At most colleges, tuition was not much more than $500 a year. In 1949 Georgetown probably cost on the high side of $1000.00. And that was with room and board.

Because G.I. Bill benefits would not fully cover tuition at a university like Georgetown, I can only imagine how excited and eager my parents became when the possiblity was raised of attending the great university on a scholarship. Those were times when blue-collar folks like my parents lived the words of a Bing Crosby song: You can be better than you are! You can be swingin' on a star!

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway Miggs Reilly

Georgetown's tall 1949 Frosh team juxtaposed against assistant coach James "Miggs" Reilly who, at only 5'6" was a Hoya basketball legend of earlier seasons. Neal Conway is the eager-looking No. 11.

The mysterious Mr. Movern

Much happened in the month after the arrival of J.J. Movern's letter. My father received from Movern an application to Georgetown and returned it. He got St. Leo's High School to forward his transcript and apparently took a college entrance exam. The correspondence with J. J. Movern came from and went to the Newark Street address, not from and to Georgetown.

Part of the mystery is how a J.J. Movern in Washington, DC came to be "following [my father's] progress in basketball." How did Movern learn about the performance of a guy who played for high school, company and town teams 200 miles from the Nation's Capital? Dad's prowess in basketball and baseball was occasionally noticed in the Wilkes-Barre paper. But that could be said of a zillion other guys in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

In his letters Movern did not indicate any positon he had with Georgetown. My father clearly was suspicious. In a May 17th letter to Movern Dad wrote:

In your letter of May 9, 1949, you stated that I should feel free to question you on any matters concerning my entrance into Georgetown University. There are a few things about which I would like some information.

First of all, I am wondering what your affiliation is with Georgetown.

As it turns out, John J. Movern, mentioned occasionally in Georgetown University publications from the 1950s and '60s, was the business manager of Georgetown's athletic department. But while a business manager may have had something to do with scholarships, why would a business manager be soliciting applicants and hinting that they could attend Georgetown on scholarships?

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway

Neal Conway scores his only 2 points in his only Varsity game, against St. Francis of Loretto at Uline Arena.

My father's May 17 letter continued:

Also you probably read on my application that I am married. I would like to know if there is any way I can supplement my government allowance [G.I. Bill].

The next preserved letter from Movern, dated June 2, 1949, is on Georgetown University Department of Athletics letterhead. In it Movern writes that Georgetown's basketball coach, Elmer Ripley, who was "very interested" in my Dad's basketball record, is "no longer connected with the university." Movern informs my father that he would now have to contact and get approval from the new coach, Francis O'Grady at an address in Staten Island, NY. Note that Francis "Buddy" O'Grady was a New Yorker.

My father, in his letter of complaint to Fr. McHugh, recounted how he wrote to Coach O'Grady twice, "but he never even acknowledged my letters."

In late June my father had a phone conversation with Movern who followed up with a July 1 letter from the Newark St. address. Movern wrote:

I have discussed your case with the Basketball Coach and he is hesitant in making a final decision for several reasons. First of all, it is noted that you wish to major in Chemistry which course would prevent you from participating in athletics....the policy has been to have the athletes register for the Bachelor of Social Science course....Chemistry involves considerable laboratory time which comes in the afternoon and interferes with basketball practice.

It has also been brought to my attention that you are married which may make a difference in your future plans. [GU does not have housing facilities for students and their wives.] Housing has always presented quite a problem in Washington and you will find it extremely difficult to find accomodations near the university. Furthermore, with basketball occupying...five months time and studies nine months, the responsibilities that are a part of marriage cannot be met satisfactorily.

I have learned through experience that a married student does not have the time to participate in athletics, study and hold down a part-time job, the latter being especially necessary.

Despite the above my Dad spoke with Movern on the phone on July 9, 1949 and Movern assured him that he had O'Grady's approval.

Several children?

Also on July 9th Georgetown Assistant Dean McHugh sent a letter to Dad writing that he was "happy to inform you that your application for admission to our college of Arts and Sciences has been approved by the Committee on Admissions. You have been awarded a place in the Freshman class--" Information For New Students was enclosed.

Let's pause to reflect on how short the college application timeline was. My father received the letter from Movern about a Georgetown scholarship in April. By July he had been accepted by the university.

I don't know how joyful my parents were over that acceptance letter for it arrived in a thickening fog of confusion and frustration. Fr. McHugh makes no mention of a scholarship in the letter. Apparently while the letter was in transit, my father traveled to Washington, likely on buses that took all day to meander from and to Northeastern Pennsylvania, and visited Georgetown's campus. He met his correspondent John J. Movern and records that he was "shown around the campus, treated with the utmost courtesy and departed with the words 'see you in September' ringing in my ears."

Following on the heels of the acceptance letter was another from Movern's Newark St. address. Movern wrote:

After talking to you in Washington, I had intended to secure Coach O'Grady's permission [Had Movern not told my father on the phone on July 9th that he had O'Grady's approval?] to place your name on our scholarship list....However I have since received information that will prevent my assisting you further. It has been brought to my attention this afternoon that you have several children....

My parents only ever had one child and he was born 12 springs after 1949.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway

The 1950-51 Hoyas Varsity. Front Row (from left): Billy Wolfer, Jim "Tippy" Larkins, Don O'Leary, Mike Vitale, Danny Supkis, Bob Scott, Tony Durmowicz, Bob Stuhr, Lucas (Mgr.) Back Row (from left): Gerry Nappy, Bill Bolger, Hugh Beins, Neal (sp. Neil) Conway, Bill Storz, Jack Hekker, Dennis Murphy, Bob Makatura. Missing due to an injury was season top scorer Barry Sullivan who booked 290 points.

Spring Hill College

Over the next two weeks, the offspring -- or lack thereof -- issue must have been straightened out. However in a July 27 letter Movern reported that he had not "heard from Coach O'Grady yet concerning your future status although I expect some word from him very soon."

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway Lawrence R. McHugh, S.J.

Assistant Dean Rev. Lawrence R. McHugh, S.J. who likely cut the bull lathering my father's scholarship. Dad took me to visit Fr. McHugh in the early 1970s when the Jesuit was dying under the dome of old Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In the second paragraph of that letter Movern then pulled a switch. He told my father that he could "place you in Spring Hill College, Mobile, Alabama." Movern continued that the "high class and progressive" Jesuit College's Athletic Director, Bill Gardiner is an "old friend" and very interested in my father as a player. This is the last preserved correspondence from Movern.

My father recorded in the complaint letter to Fr. McHugh, that "I informed [Movern] immediately that I could not possibly go to [Spring Hill] and asked him what became of my Georgetown Scholarship. Now I am wondering what became of him."

Coach Bill Gardiner was indeed eager to have my father at Spring Hill. Being married was not a problem with residence and basketball scholarships in Mobile. In August my father spoke with Gardiner on the phone and received a letter from the coach dated August 29. With fall semesters starting just a couple weeks away, Gardiner indicated there was still time to enroll. He enclosed "pictorials" of the campus. "One is during the war when the army had the place."

"I talked with our Alumni President," Gardiner wrote, "and he feels sure he can fix your wife up with a job and we can find you both an apartment." In another letter dated Sept. 2, 1949, Gardiner urged my Dad to visit the campus at "my expense. Just keep a record of what the fare and meals run you and I will reimburse you here."

In a handwritten draft response on the back of Gardiner's letter, my Dad thanks the coach and tells him that he has enrolled at Penn State.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 Madison Square Garden Neil Conway Neal Conway

Beginning in 1937, Georgetown played an annual game at Madison Square Garden, then on 8th Ave. between 49th and 50th. The 1950 program cover.

"I learned from a basketball coach in Mobile, Alabama," Dad wrote in the complaint letter to Fr. McHugh, "that I was getting a very 'dirty deal' from Georgetown." Not a nice thing for an "old friend" of Movern's to say.

The long complaint letter to Fr. McHugh was dated September 7, 1949, one week before classes at Georgetown were to start. The letter must have moved Fr. McHugh -- or someone at Georgetown -- because my Dad got the scholarship. He, an ancient 25-year-old and married, moved onto campus as any 18-year-old freshman. His first dorm room was in Healy Hall in the clock tower, under the clock's huge bells. My Mom stayed in Pennsylvania, working for Okonite, as she did for the next few years.

As I wrote at the outset, the full story is never likely to be known. Again, how did Movern learn about my Dad? Why did he correspond with my father from his home address rather than from the university on Georgetown letterhead? Letters on official stationery might be seen by other G.U. employees or produced by my father in a complaint against the university. Were Movern, and perhaps others, looking to profit somehow from connecting students with scholarships? Was Movern playing a bait-and-switch game to procure players for his "old friend" Coach Gardiner?

Part II: Why It Was Taken Away

Or were they just looking for tall guys to play on Georgetown's team? Had college sports entered the era when sports teams' performance had an effect on alumni financial support?

Looking back from 1950, the Hoyas had had a 20-year winning-season streak that ran from 1910 to 1930. In the 20 years between 1930 and 1950, they logged only seven winning seasons with the pinnacles of those years reached in 1942-43 (22-5) and in 1946-47 (19-7). Georgetown might have been trying to reestablish a pattern of consistent glory by building a dream team of taller-than-average players such as my Dad who, in G.U. stats, was 6'5".

In the decades ending the 20th and beginning the 21st centuries, the typical basketball player is between 6'6" and 7' tall or more. Such sky-reaching was less typical around 1950 with height distribution being closer to 6 feet, even a little less. In an article about the season's prospects for 1950-51, when my Dad had been elevated from Frosh to Varsity, the author writes that advancing freshmen, "centers Hugh Beins (6'7") and Gerry Nappy (6'6")...will give the Georgetown court a height advantage long lacking in the Hoya scheme." Forwards included Bill Bolger and Dennis Murphy, both at 6'5". As a freshman, Beins had scored 149 points. His fellow Bronx New Yorker Murphy (later a U.S. Marine Corps General) scored 151.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball Class of 1953 Neil Conway Neal Conway

Dad's photo in the 1953 yearbook with name actually spelled correctly. He also had a sports show on Georgetown's radio station WGTB on which he notoriously ad-libbed the names of Russian athletes in the 1952 Olympics.

The Seasons Prospects mention my father (rendering his name "Neil" as it is so misspelled in all G.U. basketball annals) at 6'5", as being a center, married, the oldest on the team and "one of the more consistent on foul shots." His teammates called him "Pops."

With Georgetown's McDonough Gymnasium under construction, the 1950-51 Hoyas played home games along the approach tracks to Union Station at Uline Arena. Later renamed the Washington Coliseum, this venue is best remembered as being the site of The Beatles' first concert in the U.S. A highlight of the regular season was the annual game in the basketball mecca, Madison Square Garden, then in its Eighth Avenue incarnation. On December 14, 1950, in an early televised contest, the Hoyas played the Long Island U. Blackbirds.

Pop Knick's sons

New York Post reporter Milton Gross introduced the young sophomore-heavy Hoyas to Gotham as the "fuzzy-faced lineup," and speculated that it could possibly be "the best ever to represent the Washington, DC Catholic institution." Gross also noted that the Hoyas were heavily laden with New Yorkers. "Pop Knick surely is rich in basketball-playing sons."

Also by Neal J. Conway:

A World War Two Love Story

LIU beat the Hoyas, 75-66. The "fuzzy-faced line-up" needed another year to fulfill hopes and expectations. Eight wins and 14 losses were entered in the 1950-51 season ledger. Although the team set a record for single-season point total (1472) and the performances of Hugh Beins (184), William Bolger (265) and Barry Sullivan (290) boded well for 1951-52 and beyond.

My Dad only scored two points. And that because -- I was shocked when I learned this -- he was allowed on the court for only one game, a home meeting with St. Francis of Loretto.

In late 1951 the Hoyas began playing in McDonough Gymnasium, their on-campus home for the next 30 years. A nice photo of my father and his biography (name again incorrectly spelled "Neil") appear in the 1951-52 basketball brochure, however Dad was no longer a varsity player.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Neil Conway Neal Conway

Demoted to Junior Varsity, Neal Conway holds the ball with a DC-area high-school player ten years his junior.

That is because Georgetown took away his scholarship and that of at least one other player from Pennsylvania. The reason, which was kept secret until it was aired at a players' 40-year reunion in 1994, was that Georgetown's big-donating New York alumni wanted more players from the New York area on the team. Georgetown bowed to their pressure.

My parents figured that the Georgetown education that had begun with the scholarship was worth continuing without it. They scraped together the funds to pay the balance not covered by the G.I. Bill. The other player from Pennsylvania had to drop out and complete his degree elsewhere.

Dad continued playing basketball for Georgetown, but on the junior varsity squad which battled on the hardwood with teams from DC-area Catholic high schools such as Gonzaga and St. John's.

My father graduated from Georgetown in 1953 and enrolled in Georgetown's law school. However to balance legal training with a work schedule, he soon transferred to George Washington University. He carpooled on weekends to and from Northeastern Pennsylvania with another GWU law student, future governor Robert Casey, Sr.

A friend secured my Mom a job in the DC U.S. District Attorney's office so she could join my father in DC. That is how the Nation's Capital became our home.

While I'll never know the whole story seventy years after it happened, it was amusing and edifying to find what I could behind the letters and research my father's college basketball career. The greatest and most satisfying thing I've learned from it all was that Dad and I had a thing in common that I did not know of. He was not taken seriously either. But he kept on.

Georgetown Hoyas basketball 1950 1951 Hugh Beins Neil Conway Neal Conway

Old Georgetown teammates Hugh Beins and Neal Conway in 1994. My father said Beins was "one of the finest men I ever knew."

For Further Reading

About Neal J. Conway